“The first biennale is still the most famous,” writes Oliver Bennett in The Guardian. When it was started in 1895 by then mayor, Riccardo Selvatico, the Venice Biennale “hoped to ride the growing move in bourgeois cultural tourism.” A biennale “puts your city on the map and its great city marketing,” says Rafal Niemojewski of the Biennale Foundation.
Venice’s Biennale “is something of a misnomer,” explains Lonely Planet, because “it is actually held every year, but the spotlight alternates between art (odd-numbered years 2017, 2019, 2021) and architecture (even-numbered years, eg 2018, 2020, 2022). The summer art biennale is the biggest draw, with some 300,000 visitors viewing contemporary art in 30 national pavilions in the Giardini (Biennale gardens), with additional exhibitions in venues across town.” No city is “more ideally suited to hosting a major international art show than Venice,” says Jonathan Glancy in The Telegraph. And though most people associate the Biennale with the national pavilions in the Giardini or the main site at the Arsenale – the former dockyards -- the real joys of the Venice Biennale are the fringe events, says Marcus Field in The Independent.
The festival didn’t take long to branch out -- in the 1930s new festivals were born: music, cinema -- the Venice Film Festival in 1932 was the first of its kind -- and theatre. “In 1980 the first International Architecture Exhibition took place, and in 1999 Dance made its debut at La Biennale.” And the Biennale has spawned many imitators across the globe -- estimated to be between 200 to 300 – and Oliver Bennett at The Guardian wonders if we haven’t reached “peak biennal,” observing how cities across the world are “hopping on the urban bandwagon hosting exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture.”
While the Venice Biennale is the grandest event in the art calendar, it hasn’t been without its share of controversy over its 123-year history, reports Henri Neuendorf at ArtNet. As recently as 2015, police were called in to shut down Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s installation, a deconsecrated 10th-century church transformed into a fully functioning mosque. Kenya’s first-ever participation at the 55th Biennale in 2013 proved a damp squib when it was discovered the list of 12 contributors included eight Chinese artists, two Italians and only two Kenyans.
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